Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, CA
Another day, another haunt update. We pick up the other half of our Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Nights deep dive today by looking at the general ambiance and scare zones of the park. If you missed our maze coverage yesterday, go check out all the scenic eye candy. And if you’re really behind, go read our HHN general recap first.
This year’s Horror Nights seems to feature more themed general ambiance elements compared to previous years. A photo op area with various nearby scare zone monsters in Universal Plaza provides a nice alternative to guests trying to snag selfies in the middle of scare zones. The fantastic artwork along the red carpet was created by artist, Tristan Eaton, and guests of last Thursday’s fan preview night were even able to get free, limited edition, signed mini-posters, if they lined up for it.
Down in the Lower Lot, in front of Jurassic World, a DJ provided beats for a dance party. This was just for media night, but this season at Halloween Horror Nights, there will be a dance party every Thursday night as part of the event’s 80’s-themed Throwback Thursday promotions, celebrating the multitude of mazes based on 80’s movies or productions inspired by the decade. Highlights of Throwback Thursdays will include a not-so-friendly welcome from Chucky, a live tribute band, and a DJ dance party hosted by Beetlejuice. Plus, there will be classic ‘80s music videos and songs played throughout the event as well as themed food for guests to enjoy.
Speaking of food, the Lower Lot and Metro Lot have some fun pop-up restaurants. In honor of Stranger Things, a Scoops Ahoy has opened up just past the Revenge of the Mummy Ride, before the Transformers ride. Across from it, a facade representing the Starcourt Mall provides quick serve burgers and bites. And interestingly enough, though not advertised, there were also occasional chainsaw monsters roaming the area from Jurassic Park to the Transformers ride, practicing their terror.
Guests jonesing for a snack in the Metro Lot can purchase food at “Halloween Horror Bites” (I see what they did there) and grab a drink at the neighboring Día de los Muertos Bar. It’s a convenient option so that guests don’t have to trek all the way back to the park. But the more detailed theming also shows greater car into crafting this extension of Horror Nights into a more enveloping part of the event. In prior years, the Metro Lot food stands have been little more than temporary pop-up installations—plain and unthemed. The additional investment on facades and decoration helps create a more cohesive event as it continues to grow.
On the scare zone side of things, however, this year seemed to regress a bit compared to prior year. Five scare zones were advertised, but there was really only one full fledged zone, with two one-way gauntlet mini-scare zones, one truncated zone that bled into another, and the always lipsticked Toxxxic Tunnel.
The entry area provided a home for the chainsaw brigade greeting guests as they came in. Themed to the escaped creatures of a gothic crypt, this scare zone was light on theming, with only one of those winged mural photo ops supplying ambiance. The monsters also seemed to bleed into the adjacent Spirits & Demons of the East scare zone, sometimes leaving Fallen Angelz empty and relatively lifeless. And like last year, a lack of dancers in the front entrance plaza also discouraged loitering in the area and thus energy. The lack of dancing ladies could be attributed to budget cuts or to a growing social awareness to avoid objectification (not a bad move, mind you), but some sort of entertainment would help maintain activity on this side of the park.
Spirits & Demons of the East
As usual, it was the park’s main scare zone, located on the Streets of New York, that shined. For the first time, Halloween Horror Nights entertained an Asian-themed scare zone. Spirits & Demons of the East brought various creatures from Asian mythology to the center of the park. From dragons to banshees to ghostly geisha, these spirits of transported artifacts floated through the area, terrorizing guests with energy and charisma far above one would expect from a typical ghost. Although this area was similar to previous years in terms of theming, it did lack the massive fire towers that brought spectacle to the hub of the park. Still, Spirits & Demons brought the most energy of the scare zones that we could see and was by far the strongest scare zone of the evening.
Christmas in Hell
Continuing off the end of the Holidayz in Hell, the Christmas in Hell scare zone was much less a scare zone and more a continuation of the maze into its final, winter holiday scene. Universal has been doing this over the pat few years for the Upper Lot maze off Mel's Drive In, and similar to last year's Universal Monsters finale into Monsters Masquerade. With Christmas in Hell, the vibe was similar to a truncated version of the scare zone that started this whole twisted holiday trend that HHN has been doing--Dark Christmas. To faciliate daytime operations, themed sets were mobile and wheeled into a series of obstacles, but the characters--a Satan Claus, evil elf, villanous ice queen, and a skeletal new year's reveler (bringing it back to square one of the maze) added a maniacal touch to what is ordinarily a holiday of warm and joy.
Though returning guests might recognize a lot of the theming, this walkthrough was still a fun little haunted segment. It just can't really be called a proper scare zone.
Another year, another tunnel linking the Lower Lot to the Metro Lot. Universal has required a walking path for the past several years, deeming it more efficient than running shuttles back and forth. I don't mind the walking and tend to agree, but it does mean that this "scare zone" that runs every year gets shafted. Needing to function as a vehicular passage for the studio during the day, the tunnel is limited in the theming it can receive, so every year, John Murdy and the HHN designers simply come up with a theme for the monster costume and mask aesthetic and slap on a bunch of strobe lights and appropriate music.
Rather than paint a different makeup every year, it would be more intriguing to take a different approach with the tunnel while still maintaining daytime operations flexibility. Wheeled sets are used in scare zones elsewhere in the park, so they could be rolled in here to provide some semblance of theming. Instead of strobes, which do cause head issues with some guests, moodier lighting, fog effects, and a more mysterious vibe might be employed. If Universal really wanted to push boundaries, they might even consider employing sliders to patrol the area, since the long corridor is perfect for such activities.
Although the tunnel has limited adaptability, we think that there are still opportunities for this space during Halloween Horror Nights beyond the repeat of the same thing with a new theme that has been happening over the past several years. It's either that or don't make it a scare zone at all--reallocating the scareactor resources to other parts of the park could be a better move.
All Hallow’s Evil
Lastly in the scare zone department, there was All Hallow's Evil, the Metro Lot scare zone. But even this too was less of a roving scare zone and more of a hybrid maze experiment. This has been the case the past several years, where the area has functioned as a gauntlet-style scare zone that forced all entrances to come in this way. Interestingly, that was not the case this year, as guests had the option to completely bypass this wicked autumn festival-inspired area. In fact, one had to go out of one's way to actually walk through All Hallow's Evil, waiting in line off to the side to be allowed in.
This change resulted in less people going through than usual, and we felt it detracted from the energy and anxiousness of the zone. In addition, a lot of the props were clearly recycled from past years' mazes and scare zones, and the number of monsters crawling throughout All Hallow's Evil also felt less than in the past. And though we understood the scare zone to celebrate other cultural fall festivals beyond just All Hallow's Eve, we were still confused by some parts, such as a somewhat random, green-fogged chainlink area with camouflaged monsters in ghillie suits, and the the re-purposing of the old La Llorona animatronic into a devouring monster scene (it was good to see this old fan favorite back in a different form, though).
The net result was that this scare zone, which has been a big favorite in many years' past, simply felt average as a result.
Chainsaw Chase Out
To close out the night, we gathered back on the opening boulevard, over in the Fallen Angelz scare zone, to catch the Chainsaw Chase Out during the final half hour of park operations. For those who don't know, this Horror Nights tradition sends all the chainsaw-wielding scareactors of the park to the front to form a mine field of monsters for guests to navigate as they exit. The choreography is one of anticipation followed by chaos. The chainsaw fiends stand in a general formation, waiting for guests to pass, sometimes lunging out at passers-by, but generally standing still. At the signal, though, the chainsaws rev up, and the scareactors are upon everying, carving up screams and frights. Though this finale has lost a bit of its allure over the past few years on opening night, since it has been primarily diehard veteran fans who attend those evenings, it's still worth watching for those few guests who will be caught off guard and react hysterically.
That wraps up our coverage of Halloween Horror Nights for the year. Overall, though there were some areas that fell short and a few usual complaints, the event as a whole was a strong, quality iteration with a variety of excellent mazes and maze extensions. The ambitious branching out of new themes and tones not previously done at HHN provided a welcome sense of variety and freshness that the repetitive boo box actual scares themselves could not do, and ability to switch off just being seriousness provided a breath of fresh air to the event. Overall, this is an up year for Halloween Horror Nights. The event runs select evenings from now through Sunday, November 3rd. Avoid Fridays and Saturdays if you're going on a general ticket, if you can. But do go and check out the offerings this year! With so many haunted attractions overall, there are sure to be at least a few to appeal to everyone!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.